Death by Transporter

19 July 2005, 1814 EDT

Battlepanda recently posted on Nozick’s “Experience Machine” and the hypothetical of Star Trek holodecks. In the comments section, I learn that she and I share the same position on transporters:

if I lived in the Star Trek universe I’d be one of those sad sacks who still putter around earth growing stuff that can be made in a replicator anyhow. To me, it’s tantemont to suicide.

I’ve had many a geekfest discussion on the subject, and I stand firmly on the side of those who believe that the transporter kills a person (A) and creates a copy of that person (B). That copy’s sense of herself is continuous, and hence has no experience of dying. But each individual who is “dematerialized” ceases to have any consciousness. Based on my very sketchy memories of Nozick’s “closest continuer” theory, I don’t think it answers my hypothetical Federation self’s objections to using the transporter. Moreover,

What about the case where two or more individuals seem equally close continuers of an earlier person, as in the transporter example? Here Nozick’s view is that, in the latter case, neither B nor C is identical to A – since there is no single closest continuer – and thus A no longer exists; though had only one person arrived in the spot to which the machine was supposed to send A, A would have continued to exist. Personal identity thus depends in part on factors extrinsic to the person himself.

This, of course, did happen ST:TNG‘s episode “Second Chances.” One of the Riker’s is unintentionally abandoned for six years, thus setting up a psychological “what if” for “our” Riker. Similarly, in the Farscape episode “Eat Me,” John Crichton is “twinned.” The process here, following the writers’ refusal to engage in too much technobabble, is a bit unclear. Nevertheless, neither Crichton is supposed to be a “copy” of the original, and hence this clearly falls (as does the “Second Chances” example) within Nozick’s example of B and C not being identical to A.

Regardless, the standard objection to my fear of dying in the transporter is that everyone’s molecules are replaced over time anyway, and that our personhood shifts significantly over time.[fn1] But there must be, in my view, a physical difference between these processes and having all of your atoms ripped apart.

1Someone please correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t the latter the real metaphysical issue addressed by the “closest continuer” argument?

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